Logo for ALPHABEaT, the series about 'the A to Z of animal cruelty' on my blog

ALPHABEaT: Here’s Introducing…

Pair of bulls on an Indian field, with their mouths muzzled

26 ways in which humans are cruel to animals, huh? Actually, there are infinitely more, but if we had to profile all of them, we’d need to extend to another language. Plus, even talking of 25 more ways in which we are subjugating toward our fellow sentient beings than the only one we focus on – killing – is a lot. Yes, saving a cow from slaughter (a raging debate in India last year) but milking her till she can lactate no more is equally, and in fact, more cruel. Just as putting a rope through a bull’s nose and a wooden beam on his neck and making him till the soil in the heat with little or no rest, is too. As is keeping him tethered when he’s not slaving in the field. Or keeping a dog chained in the lawn of your house. Or caging a bird. Or… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Parrot in a cage near a roadside astrologerSo, 26 posts that will talk about a form of cruelty each that we inflict on our fellow furry beings. And maybe more – if I decide to repeat some letters (for as I already mentioned, our cruelty knows not the limits of the alphabet). And it may not always be ‘P for parrot’ (roadside astrologers in India keep parrots in miniscule box-cages, after clipping off their wings so that they can’t fly, to have them pull out tarot cards for people; seriously), but perhaps ‘P for pet’ (yes, the “loving act” of having a cat or dog at home has a lot of leading, and even, built-in cruelty). Come, open your books, and heart, and learn the ALPHABEaT.

About the name…

Apart from the ‘beat’, there is also the additional layer of ‘alpha’ – of how humans think they are the alpha species/animals, born/meant to dominate over all others.

About the logo…

The all-caps text and maroon colour of ‘ALPHABET’ are meant to indicate the presumed dominance of humans over other living/sentient beings. The lowercase ‘a’ that forms ‘ALPHABEaT’ depicts the size/stature of living/sentient beings in the eyes of humans, and the white colour their innocence. The smear of red obviously indicates all the cruelties we so generously dish out to them.

Logo for ALPHABEaT, the series about 'the A to Z of animal cruelty' on my blog

The tan background indicates the generalized/symbolized colour of both humans and animals, meaning that somewhere we are both of the same grain. The criss-crossing lines indicate two things. One, humans and animals’ paths are meant to intersect (we were meant to be on this planet together) and how we should respect that (animals do, but humans don’t). Two, the lines represent graphic crosses of sorts (that standing for ‘don’t’, not that for the trinity), indicating what we ought not to do to/with animals. Ah, but who’s listening? But maybe that’s why there’s this series.

Await the first letter then…

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Front-Back covers of 'The Secret Sanctuary', Stephen Alter's new book for children

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘The Secret Sanctuary’

Humans were never meant to interfere with animals. Animals were meant to be in the wild, and humans in the plains, or well, non-wild. But man is man, and has not been up to much good since the time of Cain. He has let his population and greed go forth and multiply, so much that it’s come at the cost of the animals’ (population only; animals aren’t greedy, they take only how much they need, food and territory alike). Many animals have lost their habitat and thus their numbers, and others find themselves in what are sanctimoniously called sanctuaries, spaces that nevertheless have boundaries and in many cases fences that define how much space an animal can have. But what if there was a space, a sanctuary, a place for animals where humans just couldn’t enter, or better still, not interfere?

Stephen Alter, with the Himalayas in the backgroundStephen Alter introduces just such a place in his new book for children, ‘The Secret Sanctuary’. The sanctuary is set in the real-life Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, near the small village of Kolti, north-east of Mussoorie. The story takes us through one day in the lives of three kids, the siblings Kamla and Pradeep and their friend Manohar. The three set off for their distant school one morning as usual, through the edges of the forest, then distracted by a marten pair on the hunt, go deeper and lose their way. As they slowly and as gallantly as possible try to find the path out (there puzzlingly doesn’t seem to be one, at least not in the same direction they came), they realise they and their interferences with the animals (such as stroking a barking deer) are oblivious to the animals. The forest is the animals’ alone, it’s truly an animal sanctuary.

To help the kids (and perhaps to enable the philosophy of the book to emerge), Alter introduces a naturalist in the middle of the forest. He is appropriately named: Dr Pashupatinath Linnaeus Mukherjee – Pashupatinath afPashupatinath, the incarnation of Shiva as the lord of the animalster the mythological lord of animals and Linnaeus after Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, or basically, the person who stipulated all those Latin names for plants and animals. The ‘Animal Doctor’ knows the workings of the forest deeply – he has been there, lost or wandering, for the past three years (although he’s not sure of the exact duration, as “Jungle Time” works differently, slowly, he says). He came there for the believed-extinct Mountain (Himalayan) Quail, but hasn’t given up despite not spotting it even once. Dr Mukherjee provides them food (fruits, seeds, tubers and other things green and edible), water (the hidden spring, which proves to be a secret sanctuary within the secret sanctuary) and shelter for the night (a cave that he shares with a bear, who does make an appearance, but remember, the animals can’t see the humans, so all of them sleep soundly, though a bit tightly), opens them up to the magic of the forest (the birds’ dawn chorus), and most crucially, answers their questions about animals, birds, their lives and workings.

In the end, the kids do manage to find their out. But there is no big adventure (apart from the doctor tumbling down after pursuing the supposed call of the quail), no major action (the result of the leopard stalking the goat-antelope doesn’t unravel in front of their eyes, so you don’t know just then “who won”), no breakthrough (the doctor doesn’t find the quail, yet); in short, there’s no high drama. The kids leave the forest as they came, unobtrusively. Also, they don’t destroy anything in the sanctuary: they use the doctor’s sBear Gryllis in (eating-wild-animal) actionolar lamp at night, forage for the fruits of the forest, and most remarkably, don’t do a Bear Grylls: they don’t hunt (making a big point about surviving in the wild without destroying the balance / sanctity of the place; although technically they can’t hunt in this case because of their “non-interferability”). The animals in their place, the humans back in theirs, without disturbing the former or their way of life. Just the way nature meant it to be.

That itself is a big achievement of Alter’s. Else, most animal / kid fiction ends up being extremely racy / pacy. Here, the author treats his reader kids almost as grown-ups, or at least mature, leaving them to work out the philosophy from the deceptively simple narrative. And it is a philosophy rather than a message. A message, that too about animal (habitat) conservation, could come across as forceful and thus be eventually discarded. But a philosophy, being more at a principle level, is easier to adopt, or at least consider.

But Alter serves up other glories too. He knows the environs intimately: you feel he could make his way out of this sanctuary if it came to that (Alter was born and now lives in Mussoorie, and Dr Mukherjee almost seems his alter ego, except that the doctor came from elsewhere and Alter came back here). And he writes immaculately, to paint the perfect picture of the place and its creatures: The bear had a strong, earthy smell, like a big dog but with a wilder, stronger smell, as if he’d been rolling about in rotting leaves. You feel you’re the fourth kid there in the forest.

However, Alter reserves the best part, of his intention, for last. In the acknowledgments section, he mentions how 50% of his royalties from the book will go toward the Reserve. So, go on, visit this sanctuary, both for the love of reading and for that of animals.

Signboard stating 'Jabarkhet Nature Reserve'

Composite graphic of a dog seeming romantic

Irfanimals: The Heart Is Still Young

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There’s a saying in Hindi: Rassi jal gayi, par bal nahi gaya. Translation: The rope has burnt, but not lost its strength.

I get proof of this once every few mornings, when I stop by Zuzu, this weather-beaten street dog around this bank where I pause to tighten my laces before starting off on my morning walk. Zuzu is a mix of white and light brown, though the white is more like light grey due to the dust and his age. He looks like he’s seen many winters, and perhaps lost his tail in one of them – all he has now is a stump. Which he nevertheless wags like a swing when he spots me from his morning haze. Much like that rope, he may not have his tail, but wags the vestige nevertheless.

By the way, I’ve given him that name (like almost all my street dog friends). Because the first few days I came to know of him, I would always found him either fast asleep or looking quite dazed (after waking up from his haze). Even now, when I approach the bank steps, I find him often still in La-La-land, his tongue drooping through his mouth and canines. Zzzu-zzu.

But Zuzu loses much of that droopiness when we reconnaise and I variously pat, pet, tease him. And then, when I part for my walk, he parks himself on his behind, looking a mix of haplessness and hopefulness: perhaps the best part of his day is over (who would want to touch an old, dirty-looking, street dog?), but hey, it’s coming again in a few days.

Zuzu is not always the first street dog I meet and greet on my morning walk, though. Depending on which route I take and which of my street besties has woken up by then and not yet gone on their marking/foraging spree, there are at least two-three others. Zuzu of course senses their scents on my hand and then gets even more excited, his mind wagging as much as his tail. ‘Oh, there are others before me?’ ‘How many others?’ ‘Who are they?’ ‘Any one I know?’ ‘Is this guy an ichchadhaari dog?’ (A human able to take the form of a dog)

It’s only in the past few days that I’ve noticed Zuzu getting super-excited some days (rather than merely excited) on smelling my hand with its streetie scents. So super-excited that he first bounds around, jumping back and forth on his fore and hind paws, and then bounds away, unable to control that steroidish excitement. Should I change his name to… Kuku (cuckoo)?

And I got it today. As he rolled over, baring his belly to me, I spotted his teeny reddish weeny emerge out of its casing. Zuzu was horny. Neutered Zuzu was horny. (Have checked for the clipped ear.) And then it descended on me. I had been touching a young she-dog (Velli) just before approaching Zuzu all those times.

Time to make up my own saying. He may have lost the surge, but not the urge.

Close-up of eye of Moby Dick from the movie 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Irfanimals | In the Heart of Animals

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Call me Ignoramus.

I love reading. I love animals. But… I… haven’t… read… Moby Dick. (A moment of silence.)

[I do know its opening line though, as you can see – that’s an old chestnut in school and college quizzes.]

Coming back, so, what I miss in books, I watch in the screen version – to figure out in 2-3 hours what the book/story is about. That way, if I like it, I try and ensure I go back and read the book.

So, while ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ didn’t work for me as a movie – found it yet another movie about American chauvinism (“Our whale, and oil, are bigger than yours”) – I could answer the question my friend posed me: “Why doesn’t he (first mate, Owen Chase) kill him (Moby Dick)?”

Chris Hemsworth with a hand-harpoon in the movie 'In the Heart of the Sea'

As an animal lover and one who believes, unlike what many people say, animals aren’t “voiceless” (they do speak, but in a language we don’t understand; and there’s also that other thing called non-verbal language), the answer to my friend’s question is simple, and based on what Moby had been doing all along.

The “whale farmers” have been plundering these giants of the sea for their gain (“to light their lamps”), and Moby, being the big bull he is (his body carries a sea of scars), fights back. “Get off the seas, stop killing my brood.” And when it becomes a matter of vendetta (One Man vs One Whale), Moby rises up and looks eye to eye with the first mate for 30 screen-seconds. “How is my family here, which you’re killing without any remorse, any different from the one you have back home, all those leagues away? What’s it going to take to stop? Seriously?” The first mate gets it. The tri-harpoon remains static in his hand. Moby goes back into the depths and the distance.

At the end, when Herman Melville, the author of the book, has got the narration he wanted from the last survivor, the cabin boy on the ship, Thomas Nickerson, the latter tells him in parting, “Someone’s struck oil in the desert. Oil from the earth… Who would have thought?”

And then, man stopped plundering the whales for oil, and started plundering the earth. No, wait, he continues going after the whales, now for many more reasons. We need another Moby Dick for this century.

Tom Hanks looking at a spiked crab in a scene from Cast Away

Irfilosophy: Would You…?

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If you were stranded on an island where there’s nothing to eat and only a dog for company, what would you do? Would you kill and eat the dog? Or would you choose to die of hunger?

A few days back, during a violent vegan vs non-vegan war on FB (which of these ‘wars’ isn’t ‘violent’?), one of my non-vegan friends posed this old ethical dilemma. (This of course assumes you aren’t from China or North-East India and love dogs/animals.) My response, a not very unfamiliar one, was that I would not; maybe the dog would eventually help me find food, and also give me company. The same friend responded hoping that we never need to face this situation, for people are known to do the most unimaginable things in dire times. One of my other friends, also non-vegan, lauded me for my response, for being consistent all along; another vegan friend had committed a capitulation of sorts by admitting that if he were in a deserted desert with only an antelope, he would go ahead with the killing and eating. (Antelopes in deserts? On a lighter note, he should have thought through that one.)

I obviously felt good at my friend lauding me. And yes, it’s consistent with my beliefs. For the same reason, I wouldn’t go to the pyramids at Giza if camel transport were the only way to get there. Similarly, when watching ‘Everest’ and noticing yaks haul heavy-duty necessities to the base camp, I thanked myself for not wanting to be a mountaineer.

Yaks hauling necessities to the Everest base camp

And then, a few days back, I had this thought: I’m marooned during a flood, and some folk have come to rescue me… on a bullock-cart. Would I take that ride? Would animal-freedom-advocate and non-carnist me chuck my precious principles, take that person’s hand, and get into that cart? (Of course, there could be other questions like ‘Wouldn’t a boat, rather than a bullock-cart, come during a flood?’, ‘Do you know swimming?’, ‘Could you make a boat?’ But as I told you, this thought just came to me, the way random thoughts do, just like ‘If I don’t know swimming, could I learn swimming then and there?’ See, I told you. So, let’s stay with this, shall we?)

There are enough and more such examples… If I were Pi on the sea in ‘Life of Pi’. Would I kill and eat fish? (Pi does beat and dig into a large fish that lands into his boat. If so, would I have released it back into the water?) Would I kill the tiger… both to protect myself and for food? If I were washed away to the Arctic. How would I be a vegan Eskimo, avoiding spearing a seal? Would I live only on water and… ice?

I think I have an answer. I would… go ahead and take that ride, kill the tiger/fish, spear that seal. Not because of the standard answer of “It’s a case of survival”. But more like this…

B/W pic of Vicki Moore, animal rights activist, with two goats she rescued from a blood fiestaIn an episode of ‘Untamed and Uncut’, a series on Animal Planet about rescuing animals in peril or rescuing humans and animals from each other when both come into conflict, they featured the renowned US animal-rights activist, Vicki Moore. One of her campaigns took her to the Spanish province of Zamora, which had a festival where a group of young men throws a goat from a church tower to another group on the ground who would hopefully catch the frightened animal with a canvas sheet. The activist felt sorry for the goat and for filming him/her rather than trying to save him/her, and apologised with the thought, ‘I have to let you get hurt/die now, only because I can show this cruelty to the world later’. (Incidentally, the practice was banned in 2002 after protests by animal groups. Also, Vicki got gored by a bull during the Pamplona run of 1995. She survived, and continued her campaigns for several years before eventually passing away in February 2000.)

In short, it’s like this… I think I would go ahead and kill and eat and ride that animal NOW. So I could hopefully save more animals LATER. After all, only humans can talk to humans about animal cruelty. And many a time, even they can’t.

So, maybe that question should not be ‘Would you kill the dog?’, but ‘When would you kill him/her?’, and even ‘Why?’ Whatever your answer, one can only hope you are asking yourself these questions.

To find out more about Vicki Moore and her foundation, go here: VickiMooreFoundation.org

 To know what Irfilosophy is, click here: Irfilosophy: Here’s Presenting